HMS interviews Erkki Talvela, CEO of XO Boats, and discovers how and why manufacturing in aluminium is proving so successful for this Finnish brand.
How many years have you served as CEO, Erkki, and how would you say the company has grown and developed over this period of time?
Erkki Talvela, CEO of XO Boats
We founded the company together with Sakari Mattila close to 16 years ago. Upon having sold the majority of the company in 2011, I stayed on the board of XO for three years before I unsuccessfully attempted retirement in 2014! However, my passion for boat development took me back to the helm of XO in November 2018 when I took up the position of CEO. I’ve now been directing the brand according to its original aims and principles for the last four years. That said, there’s actually been a complete turnaround of the company. For instance, we’ve changed our strategy from being a niche, custom build boatbuilder to that of a globally positioned, volume producer of high-end craft. To achieve this, the procurement of aluminium, laser cutting machinery and all the welding work are now controlled and owned by XO. Likewise, all the key functions such as design, technical/naval architectural skills, production support, etc. are now all undertaken in-house too. And while we manufacture our own range of boats, XO are a significant OEM manufacturer of aluminium hulls and vessels for other boating brands too.
While most of your market peers are building exclusively in GRP, XO continue to favour aluminium. What are the reasons behind this choice of fabrication material?
There are several reasons why we favour aluminium. Firstly, especially from a boatbuilding perspective, aluminium is one of the most sustainable materials available. Admittedly, aluminium needs a lot of energy at the beginning of the production process, but the great thing is you can melt it and recycle it as often as you like. For example, it is estimated that up to 70% of aluminium used in the US is recycled.
Furthermore, here at XO, we use military-grade marine aluminium. The most essential element of the core of the XO boat, of course, is the hull – a hull design we believe to be one of the most capable rough-water performers in its class. Aluminium is highly durable and robust, which is why it’s so well suited to taking punishment in harsh conditions. Unlike GRP, though, no moulds are needed in the production of an aluminium hull. This therefore gives almost limitless possibilities in terms of design and development. Plus, from a fine-tuning point of view, working in aluminium means we can tweak the boat’s performance far more straightforwardly, and at a fraction of the cost, than we would if were working in GRP. From an owner’s point of view too, an aluminium-hulled craft represents a good investment, as it retains its value due to the material’s durability and long life.
In your experience, what are some of the key reasons why private customers have specifically chosen to purchase/own an XO?
I think the driving qualities of the XO’s seaworthiness, its super-strong, versatile hull form, as well as its very identifiable all-weather design – all these features continue to be among the key reasons why customers are attracted to the brand. The ‘you can’ element in terms of an XO’s ‘anytime, anywhere’ abilities also means it has corresponding synergies with the likes of a Range Rover, and perhaps even more so a Land Rover Defender. People understand this type of analogy. Not that everybody wants to be out at sea in adverse sea conditions, but folk find it very reassuring to know that they can rely upon the XO’s ability to take good care of them if it does turn rough. For many, a high residual value plays a big part in the justification of a substantial purchase. We’re proud of the fact that the XO brand scores highly in this regard.
DSCVR 9 Open – Equipped with luxurious deck areas and a bbq party area with space for 10 people at the stern, this boat is perfect for days on the water. All we need is some sun!
To what degree has the design of the XO range been influenced by the demands of your own Scandinavian environment?
It has had a great influence, for sure. There is only 1–1.6% salt in the Baltic Sea and this contributes to the seas being steeper and shorter in length as a result. It means a hull has to not only be able to slice its way through the head seas at speed but also traverse the troughs without slamming. A great source of inspiration in terms of our R&D is the Baltic’s Archipelago Sea, where, between Finland and Sweden, you’ll find one of the biggest archipelagos in the world. The islands have a lot of people, like myself, who own holiday cottages there. This means people use their boats to commute between the islands and the mainland, and often this has to be done when the weather is less favourable – perhaps even when it’s snowing hard and visibility is down to a few yards. We build the XOs with these types of demands in mind, designing the craft to be as practical and as functional as possible.
I’m interested to learn more about XO’s association/working relationship with Arksen. How do the two brands interact and with what aims?
Arksen and XO have very similar synergies and brand values. We both desire to build sustainable, seaworthy boats that, in terms of their construction, display a sensitivity toward the marine environment.
But as mentioned previously, at XO we build for a select number of other brands. Arksen are now one of these, so for us, building their craft merely represents an extension to our existing production line. But by taking this relationship a step further, it allows us to expand our business model and helps us gain access to fresh markets. From Arksen’s perspective too, it’s a more attractive proposition to have their craft produced by an established builder like XO than to take on all the manufacturing issues themselves. Our combined branding also carries even more weight in the market.
EXPLR 9 – With its accommodation capacities and weatherproof cover, EXPLR 9 is the perfect boat for the adventurers travelling in all corners of the planet.
The boating season in the northern hemisphere is relatively short. How does the XO design offer owners greater, all-year-round use?
In Scandinavia, it’s important to have a heater in the boat, because commonly in wintertime we’ll drive in semi-frozen waters! So, not only are our cabin boats centrally heated but they’re designed to give total protection from the elements. Hence why they’re so suited to ‘out-of-season’ use and passage making in all weathers. It means, of course, these craft possess the necessary credentials to fulfil a broad spectrum of applications throughout the entire year. In turn, all-year-round suitability means that the investment an owner makes in one of these craft is maximised to the absolute full.
The XO was one of the first to utilise the now highly popular ‘dreadnought’-style semi-wave-piercing bow. How did this come about, and why does this continue to be your favoured hull form?
We wanted to stand out as forerunners and trailblazers in terms of our designs. The ‘dreadnought’ design had already been introduced in sailing yachts, but as regards motorboats, it was really only Wally Yachts who’d adopted this style at the point we took this direction. It’s true that most of the aluminium boats on the market are workboats. We felt aluminium had therefore largely been overlooked by the leisure boat industry as very few builders, if any, in fact, were offering an aesthetically pleasing alternative to GRP. In response to this opportunity, we began by making a hybrid with a GRP inner lining. The concept worked.
EXPLR 10 S+ – One of XO’s best-selling models, the EXPLR 10 Sport + has sea-keeping performance, striking design and year round comfort. Gather your group & go!
In terms of XO’s production and manufacturing side of the business, how much has the company been affected by global supply chain issues?
Supply chain issues for everyone in the marine industry have been huge. Here at XO, we originally planned a ‘flow’-style production system with minimal stock levels. But when it became apparent that we were going to be faced with a chronic lack of components, we lost no time in tripling our stock values in order to cope with demand. The component situation is bearable at present, but the lack of engines is still very challenging indeed.
At this present time, if a customer wished to order a custom-made EXPLR 9, what type of lead time would be involved?
Of course, it depends on the season and engine supplies, etc., but six months might be a good average at the moment.
DFNDR 8 – Available in two versions with semi-customizing options and can adjusted for sport fishing, day cruising or for use as a tender.
Can you tell us what sustainable initiatives XO have already employed and what ‘greener’ manufacturing processes you hope to adopt in the future?
As already mentioned, we use aluminium, a material that is completely recyclable. In our future models, we will use significantly less GRP than we do even today. Our boats are well suited to either diesel inboard or outboard power. These engines can even run on biodiesel if so required. We also do everything we can to minimise waste in every element of the manufacturing process.
The brand aligns itself heavily with the ‘adventure’ boat market, but where do you see XO focusing their attentions, say, in five years’ time?
Our customers and distribution are global and there is a significant need for bigger and bigger boats. We will endeavour to align ourselves to this trend in demand while ensuring that the design of the models is sufficiently versatile so as to be adaptable for a broad scope of markets and territories. This means the boats are configured to suit not only the Scandinavian market but also the Mediterranean, US and Greenland markets too. We also have ongoing improvement programmes to advance the technical aspects of our craft, as well as the luxury aspects of the range. Improving brand value through the establishing of desirable partnerships will continue to be very important to us.
DFNDR 9 – This 2023 award winning boat has enormous sunbeds, a private heads and berths for two.
Equipped with two Mercury 225 V6 engines, the boat can reach +45 knots top speed.
If you could give one piece of impartial advice to anyone seeking to buy a boat, what would it be?
My experience as a boater comes from spending most of my leisure boating time out on the waters of the Baltic, a unique and very beautiful sea. If you haven’t already visited the Baltic, I heartily recommend you do so. It offers a very different boating experience, but due to its northerly location, it requires you to have a sound vessel at your disposal too.
But my broad advice would be: think first about how you want to use the boat, be it commuting short distances or extended voyaging, and how many people you would ideally like to accommodate. Then, too, where you’re going to be using it, i.e. inshore and coastal or offshore. With regard to the latter, you will definitely be seeking a soft-riding, sea-kindly hull, and if the boat is of the fast-planing type, then a craft with an efficient deep-vee hull. (stepped hulls are intended more for performance and high-speed applications, so if it’s a good ‘all-rounder’ you’re looking for, then a non-stepped, more traditional deep-vee design is likely going to suit you better). You’ll need to make the choice between an open boat that’s designed for fine-weather day use and a craft that offers you protection by means of a cuddy or a full-blown wheelhouse. Likewise, if you wish to go overnighting or even have sufficient accommodation to allow you to live aboard for extended periods, you will find this narrows the field down even further in terms of choice and suitability. After that, whatever option you decide upon, try to choose a brand and engine package that’s going to retain its value. In other words, think of the future. Just as we try to here at XO!